Finishing the HIAS archives project

The project is nearly complete. The finding aid is written and in the final stages of encoding, incorporating all of the folder lists from more than 740 boxes. The finding aid is scheduled to be posted online on November 30th, so watch this space for details on how to access all the wonderful material in the HIAS collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.

Best wishes for a good Thanksgiving from the HIAS team.

HIAS Activities in the United States and Overseas Countries, 1939

Natan Wekselbaum, co-founder of Gracious Home, helped from Cuba to New York by HIAS

The HIAS archives project team has been working on completing the documentation that will make list and describe the collection. We are on schedule to complete the project before the end of 2018. We haven’t been posting often because of our deadline, but couldn’t resist posting this.

Yesterday I read an obituary for Natan Wekselbaum, who started the wonderful store Gracious Home in New York City. First a hardware store, but eventually a luxurious housewares store, the business was incredibly successful. And still is, although the family no longer owns it.

The obituary can be found here.

Natan’s son Charles said this about his father at his funeral,

One thing he told me on various occasions was that throughout his life he often felt like something of an outsider … In Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, he was called a Jewish person; in Havana, a campesino; and in New York, a Puerto Rican,” he said. “I like to think that the lesson that he took away from this feeling, and carried with him, was that the most important thing is to be yourself, to embrace the uniqueness of character of one’s self and of those around you, and to treat everybody well and with respect no matter where they come from.”

Reading further in his obituary I suspected that HIAS may have been involved with his immigration into the United States. This is what I read, a not uncommon story from among HIAS clients:

His father had left Soviet Russia around 1920 because of anti-Semitism and planned to settle in the United States. But, apparently told that the American government was wary of Communist infiltration and that he would have to go to a nearby country first, he landed in Cuba, liked it, began working as a peddler there and remained.

Natan Wekselbaum graduated from the University of Havana, where he majored in business and accounting and joined the family business importing and distributing cosmetics, health and beauty supplies, stationery and hardware.

When Fidel Castro seized power, the family business faltered, and Mr. Wekselbaum, at 27, left for the United States in 1961 with his wife and infant son. He was the last of his siblings to leave. His parents followed several years later.

Were Natan and his family helped by HIAS?

Because many of the thousands of clients helped by HIAS in the second half of the 20th century are listed in the database that was part of our HIAS archives project, it’s easy to check to see if someone’s name is listed. Feel free to follow the link and search on your own relatives or friends who immigrated to the United States between about 1950 and 2000. Perhaps HIAS helped them as well.

Rosh Hashanah Greetings from Latin America, 1991

Fred Weinstein worked for HIAS as Director of Latin American Operations from his base in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for 30 years, circa 1958-1988, according to a memo in a HIAS “deceased file” after his death in 1996. He often signed his name and was sometimes addressed as Ephraim, but after his retirement and move to the New York office from about 1988-1993, his New York colleagues more often called him Fred. In New York Fred served variously as the HIAS Latin America consultant/Director of Latin American Affairs, according to his two boxes of files from 1990-1993. His position reported to Dail Stolow through 1991 and then to Roberta Herche during their tenures as Director of Overseas Operations in the New York office. Fred may have been Brazilian; he was not an American citizen, as he worked in NY under a visa.

Most of what we know about Fred Weinstein’s HIAS work is in a previous blog post, which can be found here, and which also includes information about the possible whereabouts of the archives of the HIAS office(s) in South America.

Much of Fred’s New York-based correspondence was with Latin American Jewish organizations, including CONIB – Confederacão Israelita Do Brasil; and FIERJ – Federação Israelita do Estado do Rio de Janeiro;

Weinstein’s files are largely country files, containing correspondence and news clippings. A public relations flyer on the overseas offices includes a description of the Latin American affairs work since the closing of the Latin American office. HIAS then relied on the network of Latin American Jewish Organizations and institutions that Fred had cultivated while Jewish immigration to Latin America was still active; this network kept the New York office  informed on developments in these communities including any immigration/emigration issues needing HIAS attention.

Within these few remaining files of Fred’s last years with HIAS, there are many cards and letters with Rosh Hashanah greetings, predominantly from 1991. Some are more formal, some indicate a closer personal relationship with Fred’s family. In all cases they reveal the breadth and structure of the Jewish population across the region. And the stamps of course are wonderful. These greetings ultimately leave us with specifics of his contacts and the the leadership of the various Jewish communities he had worked with for 30 years.

With best wishes from the HIAS archives project team for a good year ahead.

Aruba envelope
Rosh Hashanah greetings from Aruba








Shana Tova from Buenos Aires, Argentina
Greetings from Catalina and Mario Gorenstein in Buenos Aires



Rosh Hashanah greetings from the president and secretary general of Comite Representativo de las Entidades Judias de Chile
Envelope from Chile

Immigration in 1989, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post on the difficulties encountered by Soviet Jews requesting refugee status in the US in 1988 and 1989, as detailed in the HIAS Annual Report of 1989 .

Rejection of refugee status in 1988 and 1989 was thought by some to be related “to the continuing US budget crisis which refugee immigration and resettlement costs were exacerbating”, according to the Annual Report (page 10). Here is how the problem developed and how HIAS worked to overcome the hurdles it presented:

“All Soviet Jews historically had been admitted as refugees based on conditions inside the Soviet Union that were universally understood as adverse to Jews.” According to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1989, the term ‘refugee’ means any person who is outside their country of citizenship and needs the protection of another country, such as the United States, “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality,” among other protected groups.

Attorney General Edwin Meese, head of the Justice Department under President Reagan, and therefore overseeing the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS], requested that INS officers adjudicate Soviet Jews on an individual basis, ignoring many years of precedent in dealing with Soviet Jews. Meese offered them “parole in the public interest” if denied refugee status. This allowed Soviet Jews to enter the US legally, but denied them access to “the social assistance programs that accompany refugee status.” In addition an affidavit of support was required from a US sponsor.

HIAS reacted quickly, meeting in January 1989 with other Jewish communal leaders and then joined forces with the new Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; outside counsel wrote a legal memorandum with which HIAS and other immigration agencies could clearly explain their case to the new White House staff and members of Congress. Support in Congress helped convince Thornburgh by the end of the fiscal year to reverse the Meese directive.

Denials  had continued to grow over the first 6 months of 1989, and HIAS modified its processing operations, but it was determined “that only a fundamental reorientation of HIAS staff and an equally fundamental rearrangement of its systems would … significantly [reduce] … the denials.”

“It became clear that HIAS needed to retrain a staff which had never dealt with anything but a friendly and sympathetic INS.”

Refugee Denial Rates in Rome, 1988-1989

HIAS worked as quickly as possible, within the system and the policies and laws that had changed without taking into consideration the effect on those seeking refuge in the United States. Denials spiked in March 1989 and eventually, after legislative corrections, staff retraining and a 75% increase in worldwide HIAS staff, procedural changes at HIAS, and a large increase in expenses, HIAS was able to “consistently [process] a monthly flow approaching 5,000, reuniting more Jewish refugees with their stateside families than any time since World War II.”



Immigration in 1989

One excellent and concise source of information in the HIAS archives at AJHS is the run of Annual Reports, from 1912 to 2003. Many of these reports will be accessible online by the end of 2018. See also Janine’s recent post about annual reports, which includes many of the most interesting covers.

I was recently looking for information in the 1989 Annual Report, and came across a section titled, “Denials of Refugee Status by INS”. I found I was curious about the issues in play 29 years ago that posed challenges to the work that HIAS has always done – providing safe refuge for those fleeing unsafe conditions in their home country.

“INS” is short for Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency in the Department of Justice from 1940 to 2003, according to Wikipedia.

This section turns out to be part of a multi-page narrative about the growing focus for HIAS in the 1980s – Soviet Jewish migration and resettlement, which greatly increased with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The lengthy Introduction to this Annual Report deals at length with the effects of a huge flood of Soviet Jews suddenly able to leave the Soviet Union. Most of these sudden refugees departed for Israel and the United States, and HIAS was involved with both groups at their processing centers in Europe – at headquarters in Geneva, and at the HIAS offices in Vienna  and Rome.

HIAS clients in Vienna, 1989. Photo by Public Relations Director Roberta Elliott

In discussing staff changes during this very busy year, the Introduction includes this:

In New York, it was an especially stressful year for Assistant Executive Vice President Phillip Saperia. In addition to his responsibilities for staff administration and for expediting the installation of the new information storage and retrieval system, he struggled throughout the year with the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] to effect a reduction in the rate of refugee visa ‘denials’ in Rome.

The numbers tell part of the story, its unexpected magnitude:

At first, during the early months of 1989, those leaving [the Soviet Union] formed a steady stream flowing westward; by the end of the year the stream would become a torrent. By Dec. 31, 71,000 Jews had left the Soviet Union, surpassing by some 20,000 the previous high watermark in 1979.

The numbers caught everyone off guard … the ceiling [for the number of refugees permitted to enter the US] is determined from the previous year’s numbers … In October 1988, when the federal fiscal year (FFY) 1989 … ceiling was signed, it allowed 18,000 Soviet Jews to enter the US as refugees; by June, it was necessary for the Administration to amend that figure to 30,000. Then in October, the beginning of FFY90, the quota was set at 40,000. By December 31, nearly 37,000 Soviet Jews had been admitted to the US as refugees.

Since the 1960s, HIAS had registered each family in Vienna when they arrived from Moscow, and guided them through the application process with the INS in Rome, where they applied for refugee status. The sudden increase in numbers of clients threw everyone into a growing backlog. Was the INS increasing their denials of refugee status as a way to work more quickly through the backlog?

This situation was further exacerbated by the most troubling development of all: rejection of refugee status by the INS for an increasing number of Soviet Jewish applicants. The situation of ‘denials’ had been developing gradually since the fall of 1988 when in one day the INS in Rome had rejected six applications … Later, when there were 11 rejections on another day, it was clear that this was a policy decision rather than the vagaries of one officer.

How did HIAS deal with the INS on this tricky issue? To be continued in a later post.


A Written History of HIAS

It all started with a HIAS Board meeting resolution in 1983 that deemed a written history of HIAS and its involvement in the history of Jewish migration ‘appropriate’ and by all means necessary.

By 1984, the Executive Committee approved several thousand dollars in funds from the Liskin Family Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation in order to fund the project.

“Such a volume would,” according to HIAS President Emeritus Edwin Shapiro in a letter to the Board, “by virtue of HIAS’ historic and integral role in aiding Jewish migrants, highlight the work of our organization.” Mr. Shapiro goes on to applaud the Liskin family’s generosity by noting “and the fact that HIAS was the organization closest to Ida Liskin’s heart, stems to a great extent, from the fact that Mrs. Liskin never forgot that it was a HIAS representative who met her at the docks when she arrived in the U.S. as a bewildered, 18-year-old girl.”

Ida Liskin, that very same bewildered girl, later went on to become a notable member of the HIAS Women’s Division and remained a close and long-term friend of HIAS. She made sure to bequeath money to HIAS in her will.

Soon after funding was legally secured, HIAS organized a Book Committee to coordinate the publication details and chose Ronald Sanders, noted Jewish history author and historian as the author of the forthcoming tome.

The Book Committee unanimously agreed that “The purpose of the book would be to educate, promote HIAS’ identity, attract membership, attract potential leadership, attract bequests. The book should primarily be addressed to the Jewish community, students, (high-school, undergraduate, post-graduate), as well as to the general public, scholars, and practitioners.”

What a wish list!

Visas to Freedom by  Mark Wischnitzeranother written history of HIAS, only spanned the organization’s history from its beginning up until 1954. The Book Committee’s official opinion was that although it was a useful reference book, it was “dry and rather uninteresting.” (We are still looking for documentation to see HOW happy HIAS was with Sanders’ final publication…)

Wischnitzer’s book and Sanders’ book Shores of refuge: A hundred years of Jewish emigration, are both available to request and read in the Center for Jewish History’s Lillian Goldman Reading Room.

Let us know which one you enjoy more!

Whom Has HIAS Helped?

The work of an immigrant aid organization is multi-faceted. We’ve written a little in the past few months about HIAS’ Government Relations department in the 1980s and 1990s and their work with legislators to maintain government funding for refugee resettlement in the United States, and to make sure everyone on staff at HIAS was aware of continual changes to the immigration laws

HIAS maintained offices in countries around the world where they helped refugees, often while in transit with visas and other documentation. HIAS overseas staff hustled to find countries that were accepting Jewish refugees for 10 years or more after World War II opening offices in Tunis, Morocco, Athens, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, Quito, and elsewhere as needed, for as long as was needed. In countries where they were not able to open an office, for financial or more often political reasons, they worked through other agencies and local groups.

And of course HIAS issued regular reports summarizing their works. We’ve mentioned in previous posts how useful the annual reports are as quick reference to annual summaries. There were also a compilation called “Statistical Abstract”, issued by various departments through the decades, often quarterly. A quick glance at some of the information in these statistical abstract reports gives us an interesting comparison with immigration today. Below are pages from an issue of “Statistical Abstract” from 1960, then issued by the Division of Research and Statistics headed by Ilya Dijour, from a few years after it began publication:

Statistical Abstract, first quarter of 1960 – cover
Page 1
Page 2
page 3
Page 4
Page 5

At a later date, with enough funding, the full run should be digitized; it’s a great resource.